Rome, S Giovanni in Laterano, the Tribune

Also known as The Triclinium of S Giovanni in Laterano
Era 8AD - 18AD
Location Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 14, 00185 Roma RM, Italy

The Triclinium at the Lateran is another of the many lost mosaics of Rome. What survives are some eighteenth-century copies made by Pope Benedict XIV still visible in the Tribune to the east of the Scala Sancta at the Lateran. You go round the back of the building with the Sancta Scala, and there it is, golden like butter, behind some iron railings and looking isolated and odd. There’s also a fragment of an Apostle’s head in the Vatican. What is it? The Lateran Palace, the pope’s base in the Middle Ages, was extensively added to in the late eighth-century by Pope Hadrian I (772-95) and then by Pope Leo III (795-816), underlining its importance. Leo built two state ceremonial rooms, an enormous Triclinium (effectively a state audience and banqueting hall) and an Aula, a council room, both lined with mosaics. The Triclinium appears to have had ten side chapels which contained mosaics relating to the Mission of the Apostles. The main apse seemingly contained seven figures, amongst whom were an Orant Virgin, Peter and Paul. From what can be reconstructed of the decoration, resonances with other Roman and papal churches are clear: S Paolo fuori le mura, for example, with its Virgin Orant and Peter and Paul, not to mention the S Venantius chapel in the Lateran itself. One of the messages of these images was clearly that Rome was the seat of the Apostles, with the pope as their heir. The mosaics of the Aula which are what Benedict’s Tribune appears to reproduce, made further reference to the pope’s relationship with Charlemagne by including portraits of Charlemagne and Leo on the apse arch. These seem to have depicted Christ giving his mandate to Peter and the apostles in the apse (perhaps a version of the traditio legis used in the fourth-century mosaics of S Costanza, or a version of the Mission of the Apostles); outside the apse, on the left, Christ gave the keys of heaven to St Peter (or possibly a stole to St Sylvester, Peter’s successor) and a banner to Constantine and on the right Peter gave the papal stole to Leo and the banner of Faith to Charlemagne. The associations being made between Constantine and Charlemagne are obvious, as are those between Peter and Leo. But all depend ultimately on Christ, and so both Leo and Charlemagne appeared in complementary roles as chosen by Christ as rulers, chosen to defend God.


The point being...? The Triclinium and its mosaics have been compared to the throne room of the Great Palace of the emperors in Constantinople. This is possible but tenuous, for the pope need not have looked as far afield as Constantinople for his inspiration. Political imagery asserting papal and Roman standing was available at St Peter’s and in the Lateran itself. The theme of the Triclinium and Aula reflect traditional Early Christian concerns, emphasising the city’s links with Peter, Constantine and Christ himself. The Triclinium and Aula were built at much the same time as Charlemagne was building his palace complex at Aachen, and offered a papal visual definition at the Lateran, the centre of papal domination in Rome, of the alliance of the Pope and the Franks (whether true or wishful thinking is another matter). The political significance of the mosaics is clear: the importance of the pope as heir to St Peter, and the place of the Frankish king, Charlemagne, in Rome. They served as a statement about Rome’s political alignment: it was Charlemagne who was offered the banner of faith by Peter, not the Byzantine Emperor. These images gave the pope a dynamic role, showing him gaining his authority from God, a message both to the people of Rome and perhaps to the Carolingians, asserting his standing as an almost-imperial figure, to be treated like a king or even an emperor. Hardly surprisingly, the Hall was used to host the pope’s formal audiences with visitors from the West and Byzantium alike.

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